Crittenden Compromise


Crittenden Compromise Essay, Research Paper

What Was the Crittenden Compromise, Why Was It Written, and Why Did It Fail?

The Crittenden Compromise was more or less a last ditch effort to avert secession of the Southern states and the likely ensuing civil war. The mid-nineteenth century was a time when many people had their own views of slavery (the main cause of secession), and how Congress should handle it. Northern abolitionists wanted an end to slavery; however, southerners were opposed to such a drastic measure. In the midst of Senatorial confusion and congressional debate arose the Kentucky Senator, John Jordan Crittenden, with his proposal. Initially brought to the Senate floor on December 18, 1860, the compromise met with mixed reviews. Crittenden was willing to amend his compromise to suit his colleagues’ ideas, but it was not enough, and the proposal was ultimately unsuccessful because of a variety of reasons, leading to the deterioration of Southern unity and loyalty towards the Union.

During the 1850’s, the growing debate over slavery was nearing a definite boiling point. The controversy culminated with the election of Abraham Lincoln to Presidency in 1860. A major issue that was being tossed around during compromise talks was the 36.30′ line, established by the Missouri Compromise in 1820. This compromise said that Maine would be admitted to the Union as a free state as long as Missouri would be admitted as a slave state, and that the remainder of the Louisiana Purchase north of this line would be free, and south of it would be slave. The restoration of this line for the remaining territories, and also guaranteeing the protection of slavery south of this line were major components of the Crittenden Plan.

South Carolina was perhaps the most aggressive in their efforts for secession. They held strong beliefs that the North was deliberately trying to hurt Southern business and at the same time violating the laws of the Constitution. South Carolinians felt a number of states including Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Illinois (among others) were enacting laws that either negated acts of Congress or rendered attempts at executing them useless. The constitutional article in question is Article 4, which states:

No person held to service in one state, under the laws thereof, escaping into another shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be delivered up, on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due.

The South (especially South Carolina) was angry that too many of their slaves had escaped to the North and were being permitted to live free, despite Article 4. The South felt powerless to stop these actions and hence moved for secession, and eventually seceded on December 20, 1860. Charles O’Conor, a prominent lawyer in the South, stated:

…If the South cannot otherwise protect itself against the aggravated spirit of the North, a real necessity for this act is secession…[from the] people of the North, who have drunk into their bosoms their dreadful error to crush out and trample this system of slavery…

A little more than two months later, Alabama, Missouri, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas all followed in South Carolina’s footsteps and seceded by February 1, 1861. The growing anxieties and varying views on slavery put the nation’s unity to the test and gave rise to the need for compromise. Enter John Crittenden with his plan.

Crittenden’s plan included two congressional resolutions and five constitutional amendments (also called Articles), the first of which called for the extension of the Missouri Compromise (36.30′) line to the Pacific Ocean so that it would include all territories then part of the United States or “hereafter acquired.” All land north of the line would be considered free and all land south would be slave; also, any land later acquired south of the line would be up to the territory to decide. This measure was designed to try and balance the number of free and slave states in the Union.

The second article in the proposal called for the stripping of any Congressional power to abolish slavery. It stated, “Congress shall have no power to abolish slavery in places under its exclusive jurisdiction, and situate within the limits of States that permit the holding of slaves.” This was an important amendment because it promoted the idea of popular sovereignty in such a way that Congress cannot abolish slavery in states that allow it, thereby leaving the issue in the states’ hands to decide for themselves.

Article Four of Crittenden’s Compromise ensured slaveholders the right to transport slaves from one slave state or territory to another: “Congress shall have no power to prohibit…the transportation of slaves from one state to another, or to a territory, in which slaves are permitted.” This amendment was especially beneficial to the South because there had long been a debate over whether slaves were personal property or not. The Constitution guarantees a citizen the right to transport personal property as he or she wishes. This article suggested that a slave was in fact personal property and thus guaranteed owners of their right to transport them.

The fifth article states: “…Congress shall have power to provide by law…that the United States shall pay to the owner who shall apply for it, the full value of his fugitive slave in all cases where the Marshall or other officer…was prevented from doing so by violence or force.” Authors David Donald and J.G. Randall put it simply, “…where intimidation prevents Federal officials from arresting a fugitive slave, let the United States fully compensate the owner, recovering equivalent damages from the county in which the intimidation…was committed.”

The final proposed amendment, Article Six, was intended to seal off any future attempts at voiding any of the previous amendments. It stated: “No further amendment of the Constitution shall affect the preceding articles…and no amendment will be made…which shall authorize or give to Congress any power to interfere with slavery,” in any state in which it was already permitted. This amendment proved to be a sticking point because many Republicans already thought the Compromise was favorable to the South and this would only guarantee them of these proposed amendments forever.

There were also congressional resolutions involved in the senator’s plan. One of them resolved to boldly enforce the Fugitive Slave Act by repealing any laws that contradict it. “All state laws that contradict with the Fugitive Slave acts…are null and void.” If passed, by resolving to eliminate the personal-liberty laws established to protect fugitive slaves from the Slave Act, the compromise provided brighter prospects for the South by giving slaveholders more leverage against the anti-slave North.

There were several major reasons why the compromise never passed. One of them was President Lincoln, who “had little confidence in the compromise.” He was especially opposed to the article that forbade future amendments to the Constitution. He wanted there to still be the possibility of changing or repealing the compromise in the future. Also, the particular clause “or hereafter acquired” did not bode well with him. In a letter to an Illinois congressman, Lincoln expressed his views:

Entertain no proposition for a compromise in regard to the extension of slavery. The instant you do, they have us under again; all labor is lost, and sooner or later must be done over…Have none of it. The tug has to come, and better now than later.

Though he was careful not to give public speeches, he had spokesmen speak on his behalf. Lincoln was not open to finding a middle ground on the issue of territorial expansion: “…I will be inflexible on the territorial question…either the Missouri Line extended or [Stephen] Douglas’ popular sovereignty would lose us everything we have gained.” Lincoln, though during his campaign had promised to protect slavery, now dreaded the possible consequences of slave expansion.

There was also a flurry of negative editorial response to the proposed compromise, which was often printed in local newspapers. One columnist for the New York Times expressed his views in a December 1860 editorial:

These propositions are entirely too sweeping…to secure the assent of three-fourths of the states…we do not see, indeed, upon what ground the assent of either section…can be counted upon for such a measure…We have very little hope that anything substantial will be accomplished by these amendments.

Abolitionists were opposed to the “or hereafter acquired” term, which referred to slave territories. They felt it was a loophole designed to allow for slave expansion into the Caribbean. If the South was allowed to expand into the Caribbean, Lincoln felt it was only a matter of time before “we shall have to take Cuba as a condition upon which [the South] will stay in the Union.” He meant that if slavery were permitted to extend itself to Cuba, then the South would threaten to secede if the North did not agree to admit Cuba to the Union.

Also, regular citizens voiced their opinions in the newspapers during the time period. One such citizen, identifying himself only as “The Major,” proposed his own plan for a compromise. He suggested that his plan would be equally accepted in the North as it would be in the South. His plan advocated the assembly of five representatives from each Southern State to meet and come up with resolutions that the North must accept to prevent secession. Additionally, the North should also hold and assembly of seven representatives from each state that would debate over the issues and decide upon them “with justice to ourselves, our honor and our country.” This showed the diversity of opinions among the citizens of the nation, and how each person, if he so desired, was able to voice his opinions in a public manner, even if it was unlikely that any change would come about.

Unfortunately for Unionists, Senator Crittenden’s plan ultimately failed on the Senate floor in late December 1860. The Senator wrote, rather discouragingly, to a friend that he “firmly believe[s] that a great majority of people would accept [his] plan for settlement [of the secession crisis],” however, it needed to pass through the Senate, where it was thought that the situation was less imminent than it actually was. However, the situation was quite drastic, as South Carolina seceded just two days after the plan was first proposed. The failures of the compromise had indirect effects on the events that followed (disunion and civil war for the most part). Since the United States needed a compromise, not necessarily Crittenden’s, then the outcome would likely have been much the same had the plan been written by someone else (and still rejected). The collective effects of Lincoln’s disapproval, the disapproval from other Senators, the negative newspaper articles, and the feelings of criticism and indifference, all contributed to the nonsuccess of the Crittenden Compromise.

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